Sunday, December 02, 2007

Free As A Bird?

The title of The Beatles song I have just been listening to seems an appropriate heading for my reflection on what has been quite a week as far as the issue of Free Speech is concerned.

Last Monday saw a very controversial forum at The Oxford Union on this very issue, with Nick Griffin and David Irving. 18 months ago I lived next door to the Union and if I still did I'd have been able to give you a live and exclusive account of the goings-on (and to nail my colours to the mast, yes I probably would also have attempted to attend the forum myself). As it happened however, any account I could have written would have just been lost in a sea of high profile news coverage, such was the scale of the protest.

We all know that I harbour a lot of contempt for protesters on the whole, and I am not about to make exceptions here. Although the event clearly attracted generic protesters from further afield than within a mile of Carfax (the BBC News page spoke of someone who'd come all the way from a university in Essex. *cough* waster *cough*), I was most amused by this quip I found just now in The Scotsman:

"You get a better class of political protester at Oxford University. Last week, when students broke into an Oxford Union debate to protest at the presence of the British National Party leader and a notorious Holocaust denier, one of the intruders commandeered a piano and shouted a question to the packed hall: "Wagner, perhaps?""

Joking aside, the whole article is certainly worth a read. I liked the point that
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If the Oxford University is indeed the apex of intellect it professes to be, then where better to forensically dismantle some bampot fascist ideas and show them up as historically illiterate, morally indefensible and politically naive?".

Certainly the representatives from the Union made it quite clear that by giving Griffin and Irving a platform they weren't endorsing what they had to say. In fact, over the years the Union has hosted many controversial debates and speaker events, and any assumption that hosting or attending such an event signifies any sort of agreement with the opinions being put forth is nothing short of absurd. I think that I've said it before, but I find it insulting that some people don't trust the rest of us to be able to make up our own minds, and I find this apparently 'enlightened' group of people to be horribly arrogant.

As has been noted elsewhere, there is a certain irony to the fact that by fighting against free speech the protesters are as facist and undemocratic as that which they are protesting against. It's probably fair to say that many of them would have no hesitation in self-righteoussly proclaiming themselves as tolerant, and yet...*

It's clear that there are procedures in place to deal with people who cause trouble by what they say - just look at the fact that Irving spent time in jail for his denial of the Holocaust. With that in mind, if people choose to land themselves in hot water by what they say that should be their problem, but until they've said it we are in no position to judge.

In a slightly different manner, free speech has reared its ugly head again towards the end of the week, with Gillian Gibbons' imprisonment for the name she gave a teddy-bear. It's interesting to note that a lot of the comments on the BBC News page revolve around the opinion that it's "their country and she should obey their laws", something which in principle I very much agree with. (Though I wish we could stick to it here, because I'm fed up with "not being able to proclaim my faith" or silly things like "not being able to display an England flag" for fear of offending those who have moved here in recent years). What interests me, however is the fact that it has all arisen out of a law to prevent incitement to religious hatred. Firstly, as a casual observer, it seems that there is more hatred emanating from the "religious" (some of whom have been calling for Ms Gibbons' execution) than there was against them (it seems to have been a genuine, if a little ignorant, mistake, and nothing more). What is acceptable to say, and not acceptable to say in this instance seems to me to be quite bizarre. Secondly, as was noted in Friday's Metro, we have recently had 'religious hatred' laws introduced in this country. Let's hope that the slope is not too slippery...

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*The "Henry Ford" school of tolerance: You can have any view you like, so long as it's mine.



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